I had the privilege of attending most of Elementary School and Junior High at the Martin Luther King, Junior, Experimental Laboratory School (King Lab for short) and it was extraordinary. The picture below is from last June when my sister and I took a trip down amnesia lane.
The school has gone through several name changes since I was a pupil there, but the focus remains the same. “Experimental” in the title meant this school was one that cultivated an environment of learning outside the proverbial box, however you wanted to define that. As Dr. King had promoted, it was an educational experience that encouraged such thinking and centered on celebrating the character of a person as opposed to any physical characteristic she or he might have. My school routinely celebrated its namesake’s powerful legacy and Dr. King has since been one of my heroes. King Lab made a huge impression on the woman I am still becoming and it was a timely opportunity to allow me to revisit that which I learned so young, but can now better evaluate with an additional 30+ years of living.
After dropping Flight off at the airport for another work trip, the kids and I headed to the heart of downtown Atlanta to pay homage to this incredible man, although our discussions about Dr. King’s contributions started long before our current pilgrimage. Most recently while we were overwintering in Maryland and before the girls resumed school at the local Elementary School, I took the kids to see Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House across the street where President Lincoln died. Unfortunately, the theater was closed to visitors, as a play was opening a few days later, and the Petersen House was being refurbished. Bummer.
We still made the most of the visit and spent a good bit of time in the two museums on site as our Junior Rangers tackled their work. The first museum is situated beneath Ford’s Theater and has a robust series of exhibits on the Civil War, President Lincoln’s role in the War of Northern Aggression (Sorry, I’m writing this post while still in the deep south), and the conspiracy to eliminate not just the Commander in Chief, but several others who sought to preserve the Union at all costs.
The second museum is next to the Petersen House on the second and third floors above the site’s gift shop. On that brisk January day next to the Petersen House, we watched a short film on the Lincoln Memorial. I hadn’t realized how many influential talks, ones that have specifically served to mold our nation’s evolving identity, first echoed from the steps of this monument to freedom. My favorite of these is Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech and the film showed several clips of his powerful words, which, to the surprise (but not yet embarrassment) of each of my children, reduced me to tears.
Every January at King Lab, we honored Dr. King’s work in an assembly near his birthday, the center point of which was a classmate’s (a fellow who, hardly incidentally, is now a successful stage actor in Chicago) brilliant delivery of that very speech. Every time I heard this rendition, usually as a precursor to the 3rdand 4thgraders singing, “We Shall Overcome,” I was overcome. My compelling reaction to Dr. King’s exceptional words has only grown in response to what I have experienced along my own journey, combined with the realization of how much more similar work there is left to do in the world.
Fast forward to yesterday. When we decided we were going to spend a stretch in Atlanta, I was eager to take in both the Martin Luther King, Junior, National Historic Site and, only minutes away, the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Flight’s early departure meant we were available to start our field trip day just after 9 am. Since the Center didn’t open until 10, we started at the National Park Service Visitor Center.
Even before picking up the Junior Ranger books for the girls, we went into the theater to see a 30-minute film on Dr. King’s contributions. There were a few things about Dr. King that really stuck with me this go around, now that I have a few decades more perspective. First, I hadn’t realized that Dr. King, at 35, was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner. Ever. I momentarily reflected on what I had managed by that age (never mind having passed that milestone by more than a couple years) and realized I’d better get busy. I also remember reading at some point that Dr. King had studied Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to solving problems, but I didn’t know that he and his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King (a dynamo in her own right), went to India for a month to study Gandhi’s unconventional methods so they could return to the United States to implement and affect similar sweeping changes. Finally, I had somehow forgotten that Dr. King was only 39 when he was assassinated in Memphis. After being so reminded, I was momentarily caught up imagining how much faster our society might have evolved had his life not been cut so short – and how might Dr. King have helped us to better navigate today?
Ignoring my preoccupation with my musings, our Junior Rangers wasted no time at getting to work and meandered their way through the museum to complete their activities. My favorite page of their activity book first gave more history on the newer properties that have been added to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s (one of which we’ll see next week when we drive through Topeka) and then moved to open Junior Ranger awareness about other civil rights struggles in our nation. The five follow on questions asked about different parks that honor some of these trials: the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail ranging from Illinois to Utah in the 1800s; Independence Hall in Philadelphia; the Women’s Rights National Historical Park; Manzanar National Historic Site to teach about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII; and the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail to educate on the relocation of the Cherokee people from the Appalachians to Oklahoma in the late 1830s. This activity provided a great opening for a discussion on the unfortunate habit humans have of turning everything into “us vs. them” posturing (the sociology term is “othering”) and how a lot of heartache and suffering here and across the globe has followed in its wake.
From the Visitor’s Center we went to the bookstore located next to Dr. King’s birth home. It was only a block away from the Ebenezer Baptist Church where both he and his father had preached. As we walked over to the church, we passed The Martin Luther King, Junior, Center for Nonviolent Change (often referred to as “The King Center”), which holds the greatest collection of his written works, houses the crypt where Dr. King and his wife are interred above a reflecting pool, and endeavors to remind the world of his legacy. Sensing our children were short on attention and long on grumbling bellies, we opted not to go inside The King Center and stayed only a few minutes in the church before swearing in our Junior Rangers and heading to the car.
I thought we should drive to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, park (should be easy, right?), and find a nearby place to grab some grub. My game plan was good in theory and, unlike other brilliant plans I have had along this journey, this one, despite my best efforts to almost unsuccessfully navigate a honeycomb of one-way streets, did not go horribly wrong. We found a parking garage common to the Aquarium, the World of Coca Cola, and our destination. Perfect! And, wait for it, a fabulous brunch place was right across the street. I was so hungry I didn’t manage to take a picture, but found this one online.
At the Atlanta Breakfast Club, Keeper ordered the Peach Cobbler French Toast, Firebolt the Buttermilk Pancakes and bacon (the older two were going to share both dishes, although Keeper almost backed out of the agreement when caught sight of his order), and WoodSprite jumped on some French Toast and a side of bacon. I was the only one who ordered something that didn’t resemble dessert breakfast and happily scarfed down my seafood gumbo on a bed of grits, as I knew this flight of Yanks would be heading west next week and that variety of hominy goodness would soon be scarce.
Delightfully full, but thankfully nowhere near food coma, we walked over to the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
The Center’s space is divided into three main areas that are housed on separate floors. Although it was just a 33% chance, we started on the top floor and worked our way down to the basement, which was absolutely the way to go. The second floor houses the exhibit on global human rights and it is brilliantly done. The entry passageway is lined with mirrored panels, each of which is an interactive touch screen allowing the viewer to see and hear the stories of people who have escaped persecution for being different. Along one wall of the exhibit’s main room is a collection of the most notorious mass murderers in humankind’s recent history, some of whom are dead, some serving sentences, and some are still at large. When I saw those chosen for the gallery, I couldn’t help but think of Eddie Izzard’s assessment of these heinous characters in Dress to Kill. If you haven’t seen his show, he’s a genius.
The ground floor of the Center focused on the civil rights struggles in our nation, much of which was focused on Dr. King’s work. The most impactful exhibit we saw was along a mock-up of a 1950s diner countertop. There were four barstools at the counter and one lower space that could accommodate a wheel chair. At each barstool’s place setting was a pair of handprints, an accompanying headset, and a digital clock timer on the wall behind the counter. For the full experience, you don the headset, place your hands on the handprints in front of you, close your eyes, and see how long you can withstand the vicious hateful voices calling you names, taunting and threatening you. The whole experience goes no longer than three minutes, which I made it through, yet it made me sick to my stomach. The gentlemen who participated in the famed sit-ins simulated by this exhibit were subjected to that abuse and far worse for eight hours a day, everyday, as they so nonviolently protested. Although the girls really wanted to listen to the headsets, Keeper was the only one I allowed to try this experience on and he made it to 1:07 before taking off his headset and saying, “I am so angry with humankind right now.” Amen, my son.
Feeling that we were nearing the end of our collective attention tether, we quickly passed through the basement floor, which housed only a small collection of Dr. King’s written works. While I would have enjoyed staying longer to read every page, I didn’t need the escalating game of tag around me to tell me we were only moments away from a meltdown of some variety and hastily shuffled everyone out the door and back to the car. It took over an hour to drive the 33 miles back to Davista in Atlanta’s famed rush hour traffic, so we broke up our commute through gridlock with a stop at a Redbox to procure some light-hearted fun and a grocery store for some cheese cloth (Stay tuned, we’ll be making goat cheese this weekend!).
I was rather subdued after we left the Center, consumed by the mostly self-induced plight of the world weighing heavily on me. I could not get my brain wrapped around how humankind can be so cruel to one another. I just don’t get it. Fortunately the kids were entertaining themselves on the stop-and-go drive back as I was preoccupied by processing all that I had taken in. Yes, humans are flawed and are capable of unspeakable atrocities, many of which result from and perpetuate the cycle of fear and abuse, yet we are also capable of profound love and selfless action. I remembered the portrait wall at the Center showcasing such models of character, hanging on the wall opposite mass murderers row, and how each worked tirelessly to better the human condition.
Dr. King’s portrait hangs near that of Mahatma Gandhi, another of my heroes. I stole a glance at Keeper in the passenger seat, now engrossed in yet another youtube science video, but who had earlier been outraged at the sit-in counter experience. I then caught sight of the girls in the rear view mirror, giggling with heads bent close over the only functional Kindle in the car, both of whom had expressed great indignation upon learning of the unkind treatment of fellow human beings just for being different. Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” kept echoing in my thoughts and after again surveying our future, cautiously optimistic, I wondered, “But will it be enough?”
Overcome by this heavy day, I was thankful to escape to the light-hearted kindness of Paddington 2 for our movie night. When I crawled into bed, I silently prayed that the seeds that we have planted and are nurturing will grow to make a stand against whatever inequalities our children encounter, and may those be far fewer as we progress to become truly free at last.